That KanKouran West African Dance Company has reached its 30th anniversary is something of a remarkable feat in Washington, a city where few dance troupes have managed such staying power.
But as soon as the group took the stage at Lisner Auditorium on Saturday to mark the milestone, it was instantly clear why it has thrived: The dancers and drummers have the feel of a buoyant, joyous community, and the audience members clearly feel they are a part of it.
In Assane Konte’s “Djinafoli” and “Mandiani,” the dancers seemed to guzzle up space even when their steps didn’t travel much. Their long arms slashed behind them while their torsos plunged forward and then quickly bounced back to an upright position.
The dancers aren’t perfectly uniform in executing these steps; one might initiate a swooping arc with her head, and another might lead with her chest. But these glimmers of individuality are charming, not distracting.
The audience was exuberant throughout the performance, especially during a mini-duel between a male and female dancer. Each was doing the same movement: Their arms gestured as if they were pulling open draperies, only it was ultra-quick, and their hips were quivering at the same time. They challenged each other to shake harder and faster, only stopping when the drummer ceased the pounding beats that were pushing them.
KanKouran’s junior and children’s ensembles drew big whoops from the crowd. In part, the enthusiasm was because the performers were impossibly cute, dancing with a verve and wonderment that felt distinctly different from the energy of knowing adults. But, improbably, they were also given the most inventive choreography of the evening.
They crouched low to the ground, their legs positioned like frogs’, and then dropped to a seated position, where they scooted along the floor with shoulders bobbing.
One section of the concert that could have been scrapped was a video showcasing the drumming of Abdou Kounta, KanKouran’s co-founder, who died in 2011.
The sound quality was uncomfortably tinny, a situation that didn’t appear to be a failure of the theater’s audio system but rather an attribute of the video, which an onscreen time stamp revealed was from 1990. With sound that lousy, the audience didn’t get a true sense of what Kounta was capable of.